An Absence Of Curiosity

The media is missing a critical element in its engagement with controversial figures like Naipaul.

When issues get as divisive in the world of letters as in the ongoing diatribes on VS Naipaul, media narrative gets stuffed with checklist boxes for attractively polarised opinions.

There are some obvious and some not-so-obvious casualties in this onslaught of boxes. In the immediate context of spats (in mainstream as well as social media) spurred by Girish Karnad’s stage-hijacked theatrical attack on Sir Vidia, some insidious dangers can be spotted.

Where is the Innocence of Curiosity? The Danger of Avoiding Alternative Narratives and Multiple Interpretations

Perhaps the most dangerous sign is that the innocence of pure curiosity is nowhere to be found in the media’s engagement with the ideas of controversial figures and contested works. While looking at Naipaul-provoked (and Naipaul-centric) debates on Indian history, society, politics, literature and the whole pathology of India’s civilisational skirmishes, media discourse has tended to seek comfort in binaries of pro/anti-India and pro/anti-Muslim vitriol. The interpretations and observations that Naipaul has offered in his writings concerning India as well as the Muslim world (in a body of work which includes An Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilization, A Million Mutinies Now, Among the Believers, etc) need not be held hostage to such 2- D pro/anti takes. A very basic thing is missing in such polarised discourse. There seems to be no space for pristine curiosity about what multiple narratives are offering and how they explore different interpretations of history as well as our times. This basic and innocent curiosity of the human mind has to be restored its due dignity in media discourse on contested ideas.

For instance, there is a clear risk of stifling curiosity if we limit ourselves to assigning a school of historiography to Naipaul’s interpretation of Muslim invaders in Indian history (and his more general views on the Islamic world) and our colonial and post-colonial experiences. It’s important to remember that more sympathetic and secular accounts of the period (as seen in the works of Irfan Habib and Satish Chandra, eminent historians of medieval India and academic authorities on the subject) have also not escaped the charge of being influenced by a Marxist approach to historical studies. Their accounts, which form the basis of liberal intelligentsia’s view of the period, are generally juxtaposed with what Naipaul interprets (or for that matter, what rightist historians like RC Majumdar interpret).

But for an exploratory mind, both accounts need to be examined as different perspectives on the period based on available historical sources. In the absence of information about exact motives of arbiters of historical events and reconstruction of the period, ideological certitudes have restrictive effects on pursuit of knowledge and independent intellectual inquiry. For purposes of historical curiosity, both positions (even if ideology-driven) are equally valid or invalid points to begin one’s critical examination of historical sources and available perspectives. Curiosity would tolerate Naipaul and his ideas, regimented checklists would not.

And despite all the “weirdness” (assuming secular liberals are the norm) and political incorrectness of Naipaul’s historical understanding, it can be safely said EH Carr would have accommodated him his dialogue between past and present. In his seminal essay, What is History? Carr hinted that all perspectives deserve space for the simple reason of human curiosity.

Why does Mr Naipaul have to be your Complete Man – Modest, Generous and Good Guest and Host? He Can Be Relevant With an Acidic Tongue Too

Mr Naipaul hasn’t been coveting greatness to be showered on him by Indian media (that tag comes as a complimentary gift with Nobel Prize). But, for some reason, greatness in any field (literary, not the least) in this country also demands humility. Mr Naipaul has not been generous in proving his credentials of modesty or refuting his reputation of being arrogant. The problem for Indian media big shots (and some writers too) is that Naipaul has treated some of them with a disdain that has not gone down well with most of them. That partly explains the attempts to attack him on account of his idiosyncrasies and rudeness. But, does that take anything away from the literary merit of his work? Does that deny Naipaul his place as one of the most original thinkers and finest masters of prose of our times? No.

Binaries of “anti” and “pro” are signs of a dumbed-down media discourse which is not willing to look beyond two-dimensional narratives. In any multi-layered literary, intellectual and historical exploration, Mr Naipaul has to be an important figure. For that, curiosity would help. Exploring the world as he observed it has been his forté. Not surprisingly, his authorised biography carried the title, The World Is What It Is.

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  • Shyam

    I don’t get what some mean by ‘balanced’. How can chicken tikka, sitar and tabla somehow balance out marauders who came to loot and pilfer? Weird logic. Looks very similar to Stockholm syndrome. Its good to try to be fair but its a silly to portray everyone equally guilty so that there is an appearance of fairness. The logic will be fine if there is also some documented history of Hindu rulers imposing their way of life in other countries/regions or killing non-followers who refuse to convert or comply. This is not a trivial difference and cannot be sacrificed for the sake of political correctness.

    Just to be clear so that I’m not tagged as the ‘rabid right’, I concur that the current followers are not responsible for them but if history is inconvenient and politically incorrect because of years of marxist historians writings, should alternative narratives be stifled?

    But Indian muslims have to face the fact that most of them were actually victims who were converted over sword en masse or to avoid jizya tax (So here’s where the question of HIndu ancestry comes in, which is proved by DNA studies today, that even Indian muslims have Hindu ancestry, which is not exactly breaking news for most). If some believe the mughals came for ‘benign’ reasons or even the British came to India to have a cup of tea, they are just in denial which is their right. But pointing it out is my right too.

    But as islam is a religion with codes on how to treat non believers, it merits questioning (as I’m someone unlucky to be born outside it) what those ‘benign’ reasons were. The invaders were probably just driven by stories of wealth but none were for here any altruistic reasons (unless you define altruistic as ‘spreading islam is for the greater good of mankind even if others don’t voluntarily choose it’ or ‘conversion to islam is for their own good as it the only TRUE religion’ or ‘its fine to kill a dhimmi as Allah has okayed it and so killing them is actually better since living as a non muslim is worse than death’ or some such logic).

    As someone at the receiving end (as I’m someone unlucky to be born outside it), I have a right to ask the questions and investigate if the source book of morality of any cult or religion can impact me (if it gets powerful) or it has impacted non-followers of that community in the past (when it was powerful).

    If any one wishes to share their take on history of islam in India, the hows and whys, the motivations and impact without the need to drag every other historical discrimination for some sense of parity (false parity), I’m here to listen.

  • Rashmi

    Excellent. Anand, it is very refreshing to read how you have articulated the need to have basic curiosity. And why it’s more important to have curiosity rather than indulgence in rhetorics of polarised debates. Great read.

  • shaktifabian

    the whole world knows islam spread in india only on the strength of the sword but you will rarely find this truth in our history books since our history has being fabricated and manipulated by historians like romila thapar her marxist friends and some mullahs in disguise like irfan habib we also know how the mullahs in india sent in panic an s o s to the caliph in arabia when one and only benevolent mughal emperor akbar started responding positively towards hinduisim naipaul has written the true history unlike our pseudo secular marxist historians pygmies like karnad have a huge complex against one of the greatest english writers of this century naipaul hence the unwarranted abuse from an hijacked platform

  • “Indian in Colour, British in Taste” was the basis and purpose of Macaulay’s education system designed to create blind emulators of British customs, culture and thinking. And that’s what most of the so-called English educated Macaulites have truned out as they were programed. Ditto with India’s history. British wrote it to suit THEIR purpose. Of course, one need not cry hoarce about the malicious intent of Muslims or Britons. But let us not delude ourselves and paint them as: Benevolent Reformers and Benefactors, which they wer NOT. And why single out Naipaul for his disdain towards Indians? Don’t the Macaulites have the same attitude of looking down upon anything Indian or denying any greatness to Ancient India or Indian Culture? Pity is, we are still in denial mode and indulge in pro/anti binary discourse when the truth has many shades of greys between Black & White. And yes…there is no dearth of publicity and greatness seeking pygmies who indulge in self-promotion at the expense of others. It’s time we grew. Regards – K R Vaishampayan